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In Arnold Schwarzenegger's Action Career, One Movie Stands Above The Rest

To say that Arnold Schwarzenegger's career is one replete with numerous incredible characters and performances is a pretty safe statement to make. The legendary bodybuilder-turned-actor has had a storied career playing action roles of all kinds. In films like "Commando" and "Red Heat", he's taken on more straightforward action roles as a member of the military and law enforcement, respectively. He's also battled advanced alien hunters from outer space in "Predator," and taken on the role of an implacable cyborg killing machine from the future that fights alternately for and against humanity in "The Terminator" and its many sequels. He even beat the devil in the apocalyptic action thriller that was "End of Days." That's not even mentioning his cartoonish take on a DC comics villain as Mr. Freeze in "Batman and Robin," but you were probably still trying to forget that. Chill. 

What we're saying is, at this point, Schwarzenegger isn't just an actor — he's a one-man action movie institution. He's one of the founding pillars of the modern action movie genre, alongside Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. But for all the incredible roles he's played, one Arnold Schwarzenegger movie stands head and shoulders above the rest as the ur-example of iconic action badassery. 

This movie broke onto the scene telling a tale of fantasy in an era when sword-and-sorcery stories were considered schlock by many. It paved the way for the cinematic adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" and television's "Game of Thrones." Bells still not ringing? The film in question is the 1982 fantasy epic "Conan the Barbarian." Let us tell you of the days of high adventure.

Conan of Cimmeria was the original sword-and-sorcery hero

Directed by John Milius, "Conan the Barbarian" is the cinematic adaptation of writer Robert E. Howard's fantasy hero Conan of Cimmeria. The roving barbarian from a bygone age appeared in numerous short stories and a novel, and was even the focus of a long-running comic series from Marvel. The big screen was the next logical stop for the wandering warrior, and Milius and producer Dino de Laurentiis rolled the dice by casting a relatively unknown bodybuilder from Austria named Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role.

The plot of "Conan the Barbarian" is simple: After warrior-slash-cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) slaughtered nearly everyone from his village, the young warrior Conan is sold into slavery. He grows into a giant of a man and earns his freedom, then sets out on a mission of revenge against Doom. Along the way he meets allies in the Hyrkanian thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the beautiful warrior Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). After they successfully raid the Tower of the Serpent, King Osric (Max von Sydow) recruits them to rescue his daughter, Princess Yasiminia (Valérie Quennessen), from Doom's cult, a mission Conan accepts alone, though his friends rejoin him later. In the end, Conan exacts his revenge in a full-circle story, beheading Doom with the broken sword his father had forged at the film's onset.

Conan's legacy

"Conan the Barbarian" has some of the earliest work of composer Basil Poledouris, and the soundtrack remains a classic of the genre. The movie also showcases Arnold Schwarzenegger's imposing physique — the sequence where he practices with his sword, spinning it around, has become iconic — and his acting chops with Conan's terse, growling "prayer" to his god, Crom. Additionally, the casting of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom is genius. Jones provided the voice of Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, the first two installments of which were released prior to "Conan the Barbarian," so he brought another level of gravitas to the role of Doom, making him a terrifying villain.

There would be other iconic roles in his future, but Schwarzenegger's time as Conan left a lasting impression. He would return to the role in 1984's "Conan the Destroyer," though the planned third movie, intended to be called "Conan the Conquerer," never came to fruition. Though he went on to appear in another sword-and-sorcery epic in 1985's "Red Sonja" — another film set in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age and based on another of Howard's characters — Schwarzenegger instead took on the role of Lord Kalidor in the film, which starred Brigitte Nielsen in the title role and was not nearly as successful. 

A 2011 film, "Conan the Barbarian," sought to reignite the franchise with Jason Momoa in the title role, but the movie was considered a box office bomb — grossing $63 million against a $90 million budget, via Box Office Mojo — and fared poorly with critics as well, with a 25% critics score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Conan the Barbarian was a taste of things to come

While "Conan The Barbarian" was not Arnold Schwarzenegger's debut film — that honor belongs to 1970's "Hercules in New York," in which Schwarzenegger plays the titular Greek god — it is in many ways the archetypal Schwarzenegger tale: a confident, powerful warrior avenging himself on those who wronged him, who is able to wield weapons to devastating effect and is as unstoppable a force as a man can be.

The success of "Conan the Barbarian" at the box office — $79.1 million worldwide, per The Numbers – cemented Schwarzenegger as an action star and helped pave the way for fantasy films like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to be made (via Mental Floss). On top of all that, critics genuinely enjoyed "Conan the Barbarian," the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus for which notes that it's "full of quotable Schwarzenegger lines and gritty action." 

All in all, this is the film that's a cut above the rest in Arnold Schwarzenegger's action movie filmography, and it remains a beloved classic to this day.